A Battle of Narratives: Building Public Support for Democratic Renewal

September 16, 2020

In honor of the International Day of Democracy, The World Movement for Democracy and International IDEA, in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy, held an online discussion exploring how pro-democracy and anti-democracy narratives interact. The discussion included well-known political scientists, journalists, experts, and democratic activists from around the world.

Watch it on YouTube here:

Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy and Staff Writer for The Atlantic, argued that democrats need to avoid playing into the tactics of polarization and anger that populists and authoritarians use, and instead change the subject: “Move to real life, get people to talk about the issues around them, the things they can see.” That’s a way of breaking out of the narrative frames of “magical clashes between good & evil” that authoritarians use to manipulate people.

Bobi Wine, Ugandan democracy activist, politician, and internationally known musician, talked about how musicians like himself have created “edu-tainment,”—a form of entertainment combined with serious messages about current issues –as an effective way of reaching groups of people, particularly young people. He described how in his native Uganda, rules against free speech and open political discussions are banned, and so music also provides a way to get around government censorship.


Larry Diamond, Stanford University, urged democratic activists to use words like “freedom, human rights, rule of law, and transparency,” much more. He also described how authoritarian rulers try to get the populations of their countries to fear political competition, and therefore democracy itself. But one of the weaknesses of the populists’ public appeal is “that they leave people insecure for their rights” and rob them of “human dignity.” He continued, “There is no example in the world of authoritarian regimes—and please don’t give me Rwanda or Singapore– doing a good job of protecting human rights. They don’t do it. “


Young people in particular are looking to be able to fully realize their rights, and they’re expressing this through online media and pop culture. Nigeria’s Cynthia Mbamalu, Director of Programs at YIAGA Africa, explained that currently, the dominant narrative in Nigeria is rooted in division. Political leaders keep the people divided so they can maintain their positions in political office and manipulate the system to meet their needs.  She said, “in many parts of Africa young people are asking “If democracy is about the people, and young people are in the majority, when do we get in?”  Her organization’s Not Too Young to Run campaign is creating a new narrative that is rooted in inclusion and unity.


Omaid Sharifi, President of Art Lords Afghanistan, talked about how political discourse in his country is overshadowed by issues of corruption and terrorism, making it difficult for democratic narratives to reach wide audiences.



Annouchka Wijesinghe of the Alliance Development Trust in Sri Lanka, pointed out that in countries like hers, when platforms like Facebook don’t regulate themselves and allow debunked information to circulate in ads, they open the door for governments to take a heavy hand and institute broad clamp downs against online expression.


Gary Kasparov, Chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, talked about the need “to make technology work for democracy, rather than against it.” In particular, what’s needed is to tame the “wild west” of private social media platforms.

Also Featuring:

  • Ana Gomes, Former Member of European Parliament
  • Jose Ramos-Horta, Chairperson, World Movement for Democracy, Former President of Timor Leste, 1996 Nobel Peace Laureate
  • Carl Gershman, President, National Endowment for Democracy
  • Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General, Int’l IDEA, Former Second Vice President and Minister of National Planning of Costa Rica

Follow the extended conversation on Twitter at #NarrativesForDemocracy.